TAMPA — When the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts opened 30 years ago, it welcomed just 30,000 patrons its first year.
These days, the Straz Center gets more than 600,000 patrons annually — but no new parking spaces have been added nearby. To the contrary, an apartment complex now under construction has gobbled up 500 spaces long used by concertgoers.
The Florida Orchestra played recently before full or near-capacity crowds at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, but had open seats in a smaller theater at the Straz.
Carrollwood resident Meryl Wormser told the City Council on Thursday that she has had season tickets to the Straz Center's Broadway Series for 30 years and loves the shows.
"It's always been an evening to look forward to where I could relax," she said. "But since the beginning of this season, these relaxing evenings have turned into nights of dread and frustration and pre-planning and stress."
As the Straz Center's patronage has grown, so have weekend and night-time crowds on the Riverwalk, at Amalie Arena, the Tampa Convention Center, at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, at the Tampa Museum of Art and at the Glazer Children's Museum.
The result has been evenings like Feb. 14. That night the Straz Center held the curtain for Wicked to accommodate late-arriving ticket holders who were caught in heavy traffic or looking for parking.
But even 20 minutes into the scheduled show time, 547 people had not been able to get to their seats.
Already, the Straz and the city have encouraged patrons to come early, maybe park and have dinner, and to consider garages that are farther away. Both have promoted the use of car services like Uber, as well as free services like the Downtowner electric shuttle and In-Towner trolley. Council member Mike Suarez said the city, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Straz should work together to maximize use of those shuttles.
"It's about efficient use of our current assets," said Jeff Zampitella, a resident at the nearby SkyPoint tower. "When I see the gridlock at the Straz, from my unit I look out to the north and to the east and there's parking lots that are unutilized, night after night after night. . . . The single biggest missing piece is transportation."
And a string of frustrating nights trying to get to the theater has prompted some Straz Center members to send emails like this: "We give up. We no longer care to be members."
It also has spurred the leadership of the performing arts center to put together a task force with the city and its own transportation and parking consultants. They are looking for short-term solutions that could be ready by November, when the facility's busy season begins, as well as long-term solutions.
The problem is not only a loss of spaces to development, the task force concluded. Neither the city's William F. Poe Garage nor the Royal Regional Lot were set up to handle event parking. The Royal lot, about 0.3 miles northeast of the Straz Center, has just one parking pay station for 315 spaces, forcing patrons to line up to pay for a spot.
Along with adding more pay stations — or maybe even employees — at the Royal lot, other possible solutions discussed Thursday include:
• Improving signs both on the way to the Straz Center and inside parking facilities.
• Pre-selling parking spaces.
• Adding personnel at the garage to help move traffic.
• Restriping Cass Street east of the Poe garage to ease backups that now can extend across the Hillsborough River to N Boulevard.
• Setting up multiple locations for valet parking and will call pickup.
• Using officers for traffic control.
Council members asked for reports on June 22 from the city's parking, transportation, police and economic development offices about what steps can be taken to address the problem, plus a June 15 report from the city's chief financial officer on whether the parking division could afford to expand its inventory.
Already, the city plans to pave the old Morgan Street jail site to create more than 300 parking spaces, said Bob McDonaugh, the city's top development official. Also, the garage for the new Crescent Communities apartments next to the Barrymore Hotel is expected to be finished this fall and to provide some parking to Straz patrons. And the city is looking at a cooperative venture that could end up adding structured parking at the Royal lot.
The chairman of the Straz Center's board of trustees told the council that the city and center need to get to work to ensure they can address the challenges within the next couple of years.
Both the Straz Center and the city have grown and prospered over the past 30 years, Gary Sasso said, and "this is a good problem to have."
"But growth has to be supported by infrastructure," he said. "Without the necessary infrastructure, we will throttle the very growth we see. . . . We need your help."